June 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

U.S. military advisers' role in Iraq at issue

Obama (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Washington— President Barack Obama’s announcement that he’s sending military advisers to Iraq raises questions — in some quarters, red flags — about whether that could mean a return to warfare under another name.

Modern American history has examples of military advisers limiting themselves to just that job but being open-ended enough to put some Americans into the thick of battle, including examples of mission creep, most infamously in Vietnam.

The U.S. will be evaluating over the next several weeks whether the advisers and reconnaissance flight are helping the political progress in Baghdad, the official said, as well as whether further military action is needed.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel this weekend to consult with allies in the Middle East and Europe.

The Pentagon expects Iraq to agree in writing to legal protections for the military advisory teams that Obama is sending as part of an effort to stiffen Iraqi defenses against insurgents, a spokesman said Friday.

“I can assure you we will have those protections,” the Pentagon press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters. He said U.S. officials are consulting with the Iraqi government about that issue.

“I’m confident that the legal protections that are needed will be in place,” he said.

The point of having such legal protections is to ensure that U.S. troops would be subject to the U.S. military justice system if needed and not to the Iraqi judicial system.

Obama earlier this week authorized the deployment of up to 300 special operations forces into Iraq to assess and assist the Iraq security forces as they battle an aggressive insurgent group, the al-Qaida breakaway group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which also is fighting in neighboring Syria.

The advisers, most of whom are already in the region, will work with Iraqi units at the headquarters and brigade level, administration officials said.

While their mission isn’t to engage in combat, they will have the right to defend themselves if attacked, one official said.

Here’s a glance at some past and present missions:


U.S. involvement began with the deployment of fewer than 1,000 military advisers by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and mushroomed. U.S. personnel grew to more than 16,000 in 1963 and 23,000 in 1964, according to CQ’s Guide to the Presidency and the Executive Branch. And while they were still called advisers at that point, they were in combat. More than 500,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam by 1968 in a conflict that became known as America’s quagmire.

Central America

During the Cold War, the U.S. trained thousands of Latin American soldiers as part of an effort to secure the alliance of states in the region. In Ronald Reagan’s era, Americans offered training to Costa Rica’s national police force against threats from Nicaraguan-trained socialists, poured advisers into Honduras and El Salvador and hatched an ill-fated plan to use proceeds from illicit arms sales to Iran to help Nicaraguan rebels as part of an effort to free U.S. hostages held by Iranians.


Besides conducting their own operations, U.S. troops have increasingly been partnered with Afghan troops to advise, train and mentor the developing ranks of the police and army. Other American forces have worked within the Defense, Interior and other ministries to develop the nation’s ability to defend itself without international forces. The U.S. has about 32,800 troops in Afghanistan, but Afghan forces have increasingly taken the lead in the fight. After the NATO combat mission ends this year, Obama has announced a desire to have 9,800 troops remain in the country to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces.

Iraq 2014

U.S. officials say up to 300 military advisers, mostly Green Berets, are to be deployed in teams embedded with Iraqi security forces at the brigade level and above. They are but one element of a stepped-up U.S. presence. Among other elements: the creation of what Obama called “joint operations centers” in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning, intensified intelligence gathering and additional U.S. military assets in the region.

Bloomberg News contributed.

Kerry (SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)